I made a terrible, unholy error last week; I reread a few of my favorite authors. This doesn’t seem like it would be a problem – writers read all of the time, don’t they? – but I started to read my Russian standbys: Chekhov, Bulgakov, Turgenev. And then everything went wrong.
When I write, I have a strong voice, move action along well enough, use clear prose, but if I read my writing next to the works authors who are masters at their craft, I begin to feel very small.
Take, for example, this excerpt about the character of Anna Odintsova from Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862):
Sometimes upon emerging from a fragrant bath, all warm and soft, she’d fall to musing about the insignificance of life, its sadness, travail, and evil…Her soul would be filled with unexpected boldness and seethe with noble aspiration; but a draught of wind would blow from a half-opened window and Anna Sergeevna would retreat into herself, complain, and feel almost angry; the only thing she needed at that moment was for that nasty wind to stop blowing on her.
In a single paragraph, Turgenev distills the character of Anna. The reader gets a sense of her melancholy, her potential, and her nearly violent need to stay safe and comfortable. I cannot so simply extract the core of my characters, certainly not in a first draft.
This knowledge has stalked me over the past several days. I’ve continued to write, to meet my word counts, but I can see the beast of that constant knowing out of the corner of my eye.
At this point, I have to ignore it. I can worry more about my descriptions, my use of language during the next round of revisions. But before I can do that, I need to have written words to revise.
So I keep writing. And then I write again.
*Image Attribution: Young Russian Woman (c. 1756-1762) by Pietro Rotari